Day 3, (part 2 of day 2) of my 21 day Writing Challenge
Life’s twists and turns and ups and downs are usually not determined by one incident, one interaction, one book, one piece of advice or one action alone.
There are usually multiple factors combined together with what life serves us, that dictate decisions we make, visions that we are driven to manifest and epiphanies we experience.
While at Arizona State University, I likened my everyday experience to living at the foot of an active knowledge volcano. Every day, sporadic eruptions would occur and lava waves of new information would wash over me burning new insights and perspectives into my experience. I literally could not keep up with it all. I just did my best to ride the waves. I loved to read and being a member of Coach Robinson’s team opened me up to a whole ‘nother world of thinking as I read books he suggested and stumbled upon others.
The 1984-85 gymnastics season ended and it was one helluva ride.
We qualified for the 1985 national championships but fell short at the meet. Painfully short. In gymnastics, a small step here or a mishap there costs you and while the individual cost is small ( 1 or 2 tenths of a point ) when they are added up it’s the difference between making the cut for the top 3 teams that go to the finals and watching from the stands. We missed the cut by less than 1/2 a point (???). I took that to mean if I hadn’t stumbled on my mount and if I hadn’t stumbled on my dismount and if I hadn’t taken that small step on my press hand-stand, we could have made the cut.
Part of me felt like I let the team down.
The other part of me realized that all of us contributed to the “tenths” that we had in our deductions column, none of us performed a perfect routine. Thankfully any blame that may have been harbored was being harbored in each guys' mind. I don’t recall any conversation amongst us that remotely pointed fingers. We took the L and processed it in whatever way we knew how and kept moving. We did our best in the competition and it just wasn’t good enough.
The summer of 1985 I discovered the book Way of The Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman. Wow!
I was evolving from gymnaschitect to warrior and decided I had to make some changes.
Something had to give. During the 84-85 season, I had been president of my Fraternity, a resident assistant, had a position in student life and declared marketing as my major. It occurred to me that maybe I was spread too thin. If I didn’t have the responsibility that came with being a resident assistant, I figured it would make life a little easier even if it made life more expensive. It would also allow me to focus more on training so that the 1986 national championships would be regret free unlike 1985.
This meant more school loans since I would no longer get the dorm room and meal card that came as part of my RA compensation. Each semester was a sort of hope and pray game for me as it seemed I never really knew until the last minute where the money would come from that would allow me to stay at ASU.
Even now I don’t quite remember how it all worked out those first four years. I had good jobs or internships every summer so that covered some of the cost, my parents helped in whatever ways they could. But this time, I was unsure how I would make it through the entire school year if I had to pay for a meal card and the dorm room along with tuition.
Dan Millman’s book spoke to me on so many levels. It is a semi-autobiographical story about a gymnast who is having to sort out many of life’s persistent questions while navigating through what he thinks is the most important thing - his achievements as a gymnast.
He is being mentored by Socrates, an old guy who takes him deeper than he has ever been in understanding about himself and the world/universe around him.
Socrates explains satori. Which is that state of mind where you are so focused yet relaxed and in the moment that your mind and body are in sync and in the present, oblivious to any potential distractions. Athletes often refer to this state as being in the zone.
It is a powerful place to be and many of the best athletes reside there often. It is not reserved for just athletes, anyone can attain satori. Socrates challenges Dan to achieve satori in life not just when performing a gymnastics routine. I took on this challenge myself. I later found out it is a zen buddhist concept and is related to attaining enlightenment.
It led me to begin eating healthier, and more importantly thinking healthier.
Once the season started, we officially set our team goal to become 1986 NCAA National Champions. John Sweeney and Mark Bowers, the two guys who red-shirted in ’85 were healthy and would be contributing. We also had a freshman join our ranks - Paul Linne. The returning members, after what happened at the ’85 championships, were motivated to do whatever it took to walk away victorious in April of ‘86
There was never a doubt that we had the talent, the motivation and the hunger to pull it off. It boiled down to having the focus to hit our routines….SATORI
After I completed reading Way Of the Peaceful Warrior, I decided I needed a symbol to reflect my Warrior status. So I went with a leather necklace. Simple, cheap and it didn’t stand out. I wasn’t looking to make a loud statement. It was a subtle reminder to me of my Warrior mission. It was nothing more than a leather shoelace that i measured, cut, wrapped around my neck and tied the ends together with a standard knot.
Dennis Hayden was the first teammate I suggested read the book. I was intimidated by him and his twin brother Dan Hayden when they first arrived at ASU in the fall of '84 because their reputation as two of the country’s best gymnasts preceded them. They were actually very modest and unpretentious and I grew to love them like brothers.
I had this whole ceremony in mind where once Dennis finished the book I would present him with his own leather necklace and we would initiate all of our teammates one by one into the satori brotherhood.
Ok, it didn’t quite work out that way but through Coach Robinson, we got our other teammates to at least be aware of the book if not read it themselves.
We had our first meet of the 85-86 season late in November of ’85 and we had another meet in Hawaii scheduled over Christmas break.
I had run out of money and was unable to go home before the Hawaii trip. I stayed with some fraternity brothers who had an off campus apartment and for Christmas I joined Dennis Hayden and his wife Tanya to share the holiday with her family in Lake Havasu, Arizona. Most of the details of that break are just a blur but what I remember quite clearly is waiting for the results of the campaign I began to get some help to stay in school. My classes had already been cancelled for the spring semester because the deadline passed and I hadn’t paid my tuition. The dorm reservation was cancelled and the meal card which i could get at any time still needed to be paid as well.
Along with my teammates, I made a commitment to do whatever it took to win the national championship with them and the possibility existed that I wouldn’t even be an ASU student come spring semester.
My campaign to remain a student began before fall semester ended. My parents were tapped out, I already borrowed as much as I could get through financial aid and even though I think they may have helped, I wasn’t going to go to aunts and uncles with my hand out. I believe they may have already been helping on the sly anyway.
I decided to write a letter to the president of the university. I knew it was a long shot but my other options were non-starters. It never occurred to me to speak to coach about it. It wasn’t his problem. Also, I was ashamed to be in this situation so I didn’t want him or anyone on the team to know. Shame has a way of distorting reality and so I began to believe that my situation would be viewed as a distraction and hence my value to the team become such that I should be replaced and this really forced me to keep a lid on it. We were deep in talent on the floor exercise and vault, my two events. I might be good for a couple extra tenths but they could certainly be competitive without me.
When I wrote the letter, I knew it was like throwing a hail mary pass with only seconds remaining on the clock. If my receiver didn’t catch the ball and make the touchdown, we lose. No more time on the clock for another play.
I wish I had a copy of that letter I wrote to President Nelson. I mostly remember the feeling I had writing it. Every word had to count and carry weight. I figured he didn’t read all of the mail that came with his name on it but I needed this letter to be compelling enough so that whoever did read it, would bring it to his attention.
I went all in.
Once I got started, I was in the zone. I attained satori and it was as if the words just flowed out of me.
I delivered it to his office and the waiting began.
We got back from the meet in Hawaii and I was running out of time. We continued to train over the break and every time I walked into that gym I realized it could be my last time. At some point, I figured, the red flags would alert somebody that I was not registered for the spring semester and the dominoes would begin toppling.
With less than a week before spring semester started I got a call from the presidents office. One of his secretaries told me they reviewed my letter and she apologized for the delay in getting back with me. She asked if I had time to come by the office to discuss a few things. She said they have a certain number of National Merit Scholarships that they award to students and while rare, it does happen that a recipient has a change of heart. They found themselves in just that position and they wanted to speak with me about my interest in the scholarship.
I calmly made the appointment, we said our goodbyes and hung up the phone. I sat still for a good minute and let the relief then the gratitude then the joy wash over me.
Then I cried.